Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Loving and Simultaneously Coveting Your Neighbor

Something I read this morning reminded me of something I read quite some time ago, a description of something that author had himself read. I wrote about it in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, so it's entirely possible you read it from me. I'll reprint it here for your convenience.

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Limitless factors contribute to how our inner unsettledness manifests in our outward life, just as countless external catalysts force us to decide how other people will influence us--the scripts that over time have burrowed their way into our subconscious, the degrees of complexity our various relationships have taken on, the amount of responsibility or pressure we're carrying as an extension of the power or status or wealth we've acquired for ourselves. Jean Vanier recognizes the complexity of this internal process and the inevitability of its impact on how we relate to others. "There is an endless list of those we may exclude," he observes, and we might add those we may insult or demean or patronize or otherwise offend; "every one of us, we may be sure, is on someone's list."

Brian Mahan suggests that our compassion--our capacity to care for other people--is inhibited by our ambitions, "setting limits on the reach and intensity of fellow-feeling." He recalls a thought experiment created by Walker Percy to illustrate this awkward psychosocial negotiation. The experiment is predicated on your run-in with your neighbor Charlie, who you've known to be very sick. "You look at him sympathetically" but then notice that he doesn't appear concerned or even unhealthy; he looks genuinely happy as he approaches you. "He has triple good news. His chest ailment turned out to be a hiatal hernia, not serious. He's got a promotion and is moving to Greenwich, where he can keep his boat in the water rather than on a trailer." So how do you feel? Percy gives you two options: (1) You feel unequivocally happy for your neighbor, or (2) you're happy for him but suddenly feel a little less happy for yourself. Those who picked the second option are given a continuum of seven choices to describe "which of the following news . . . would make you feel better." The options range from your neighbor dropping dead on the spot to your saving your neighbor's life from a runaway garbage truck careening toward him. The spoiler answer is the seventh, in which you're generally happy, your neighbor is generally happy, and all of a sudden the city off in the distance is leveled by an earthquake, and only you and your neighbor have survived. Percy sums up the experiment: "In a word, how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate without compensatory catastrophies, rescues, and such?"

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Percy's experiment is recounted in Brian Mahan's excellent book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose.

Jean Vanier's excellent insight is found in his book Becoming Human.

Question: How do you gauge and otherwise control covetousness in your life?

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